When the Supreme Court struck down the NJAC Act legislated to replace the collegium system of judges, a legal eagle in ‘Modi Sarkar’ called it the “tyranny of the unelected over the elected”. That loaded charge weighs heavier after a two-judge bench suggested that reservations for admission in institutions of higher education be done away with in toto. Doubtless the argument that merit should be the sole criterion has plenty of resonance in post-Mandal, middle-class India that is blind to its own angularities. Be that as it may, calm minds will ask some key questions: should the SC have waded in on the issue when a state election where caste is a big factor is on? Is there really any evidence that reservations are fast-tracking the mediocre? Moreover, if caste-based quotas for admission are against the ‘national interest’, how does fee-based admission in private colleges help with finding better doctors, engineers or scientists?
Notwithstanding that, what little empirical evidence is available shows that quotas meant for the SCs, STs and OBCs rarely fill up. Such students study the same courses as others, attend the same classes, take the same exams, and are evaluated by the same set of examiners. There is no executive injunction that people admitted under a ‘quota’ be automatically declared passed. The presumption, therefore, that those who have been admitted under a quota are somehow all undeserving is misleading—and open to mischief and misuse by those who are demanding a review of quotas. This is something the nation can ill-afford at a time when a palpable lack of concern for the marginalised is making global headlines for an image-conscious government.
India’s judiciary has earned its reputation as one of the (relatively) unsullied pillars of our creaking democracy. Its interventions in matters of national importance are both wise and welcome. That said, throwing the baby out with the bathwater amounts to overreach. The judiciary is there to safeguard the Constitution, not to write it.